Hanoi – A Spinning Bustle of Activity

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at night, so we didn’t get our first taste of it until we stepped out of our marble-laden, oasis of a hotel in the heart of the old city, onto the dirty, crowded and noisy streets after breakfast that first morning.  It was akin to the scene in “Enchanted” where the Cinderella figure leaves her fairytale land and pops up in the New York sewer system.  We had been warned that the streets would be crazy, but we weren’t fully prepared for the any-which-way-ness of them.  The motorbikes, “cyclos” (a guy on a bicycle – push bike – ferries up to two people around town), cars, and bicycles all shared the road space with not an inch to spare.   Lane demarcations were little more than suggestions and traffic lights merely optional.  There were crosswalks, but they amounted to little more than paint on the street.  Crossing the streets was an exercise in bravery and being purposeful.  Our method was to wait for a reasonable opening, step off the curb and

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn't come close to showing the true craziness, though.

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn’t come close to showing the true craziness, though.

just GO.  Oh, we weren’t reckless or anything, especially with our kids, but we did have to use a certain amount of faith – and even prayer – to get across streets, and sometimes even down them if they circumstances were dire.  By the end of the day it became entertaining to see how on earth we were going to get from point A to point B safely.  At first the constant honking really bothered our daughter, but then we realized people didn’t use horns to ask people to get out of their way, rather it was the opposite: a gentle honk every few minutes reminded people you were there.  The streets, in most areas of the city, were like nothing we had ever experienced, even in all of our travels.

One skinny building!

One skinny building!

The architecture of the city is also amazing. One guide told us that buildings are taxed according to the amount of street space they take up – so they strive to take up as little street space as possible.  Therefore most buildings are tall – and very skinny.

That being said, the city of Hanoi has a lot to recommend it.  The Temple of Literature, our first stop, was rebuilt from the ancient times when it was home to scholars and priests to study all measures of art, literature, politics and other high ideals.  It’s a stunning courtyard of homage to the past and past scholarship that includes UNESCO protected statues.  Sometimes I stand awestruck before these religious statues and carvings that are older than the country of my birth.

The French Quarter of the city has fancy, old hotels and the local stock exchange building.  While the streets are wide and tree-lined,

The turtles of learning - a UNESCO protected set of statues.

The turtles of learning – a UNESCO protected set of statues.

they are no less crazy.

All over the city, sidewalks were littered with low-slung Ikea-like, child-sized plastic tables and chairs in front of cafes where people sit and eat lunch, snacks, dinner and drinks.  It’s astounding to pick your way through the people as you walk.

The old city, where we were staying, seems like it was lifted straight out of 1975.  The streets are narrow and crowded, with shop after shop hawking wares.  Bargaining is an art form, trying to make both sides pleased with a sale.  Some people are just carrying goods for sale and they approach others, especially

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

foreigners, to buy from them.  That bothered both of my kids a lot – they didn’t like turning people – mostly women – down when they asked us to buy from them, and my husband and I might turn our backs if we didn’t want to buy.  Of course, we did buy many things and even went through the weekend night market when we were there on the hunt for bargains, of which we found many, including sneakers for my son and a fun handbag for my daughter.

And we ATE!  The Vietnamese food was simply delicious, and way beyond just the Pho that Americans often think of as Vietnamese.  While we did eat the beef noodle soup, there were also many delectable morsels of pork, chicken, and other noodle dishes to be had.  We ate duck and spring rolls, and drank fresh fruit juice, like mango and watermelon juice, until we practically floated instead of walked.

The hotel where we stayed, as I mentioned, was an oasis from the dirt and grit of the city.  Called the Golden Sun Palace, it is a new,

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

boutique hotel with only 20 rooms right in the bustle of the old city.  Coming in off the streets with the white marble beckoning like a siren song, felt heavenly.  The people were so nice and helpful, and they really did try to please in every way possible.  They were the first to introduce us to the thick, rich Vietnamese coffee and we never looked back.  Either with or without the condensed milk for lightening and thickening, it is delicious in every rich sense.

On our second day in the city we went to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and museum. I was wearing pretty modest shorts, but they wouldn’t let me in with my knees showing.  I had to buy a wrap and put it around my waist in order to go in.  Respect.  It was all pretty surreal to see a preserved body as well as all of the “information” at the museum.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

One of our last stops was the renowned Water Puppet show in the city.  Against a backdrop of

live, traditional music, puppets dance around and through a small pond at the front of the theater, telling traditional Vietnamese stories. It was vibrant and beautiful.

Hanoi is a charming and interesting city if you can get through the pedestrian experience and the interminable grime. I hope to go back there some day.

Sake Served Beautifully

sakeThis is not tea; this is how they serve sake at a wonderful restaurant called Mon Cher Ton Ton in Roppongi.  It’s a teppanyaki restaurant, so the entire meal is prepared on the grill in front of the diners.  We normally order a set that includes a salad, a succulent steak and prawns that the chef puts on the grill live. It’s wild to watch the seconds of squirming before they finally succumb but I have learned to hide my eyes.  After the prawns are cooked, we get to eat the body and tail while the chef re-grills the heads, seasons them and serves them separately. Delicious! A month ago my cousins were visiting from New York and they loved the meal from the salad start to the garlic-rice finish. But Susan did look at me and say, “Oh my goodness, I just ate a shrimp head!”  The rest of us had a good giggle over it.

Mon Cher Ton Ton is one of those special places in Tokyo where every detail is taken into account, right down to keeping the sake cold.  If you look carefully, you can see the middle of the “pot” is full of ice.  Japanese people take the alcohol seriously and great service is a hallmark of the culture.  Put together, the service of alcohol is always carefully considered and beautiful. At the restaurant, every few minutes a server added a tiny bit of sake to our tiny, little cups so we lost track of precisely how much we were drinking, a common problem in the Tokyo restaurant scene.  But if we have to get a little tipsy over dinner, certainly it’s fun to do it with such a lovely vessel for the alcohol.

You Can Get WHAT in a Vending Machine in Japan??

vendingVending machines are an art form in Japan. Most machines are pretty normal by Western standards, which means they sell drinks.  Some sell both hot and cold drinks and you can tell because the little line below the picture of the drink is red if the can/bottle will come out hot, and blue if it will come out cold – an excellent system.  I’ve seen several vending machines that sell beer and sake – no ID required.  This is part and parcel of Japanese society: underage people (I’m generalizing here) don’t buy the alcoholic drinks because it’s against the rules.

There have been rumors about vending machines selling items of young girls’ clothing – both used and unused.  I haven’t seen that for myself so I can neither confirm nor deny such rumor.

Most vending machines take a Passmo or Suica card – the same cards used in the subway system.  The cards are pre-loaded with money, so many machines have a swipe spot on them like the subway turnstiles do, so you can use your already-filled card to buy a drink if you’re without change.

I had one visiting friend who found the machines so fascinating that he was constantly trying new things – all from vending machines – for the entire time he was visiting.  Another friend who lives in Tokyo posted something the other day that showed a vending machine for toys, just in case a parent needs a bribe in a pinch.  I’m sure that’s not the real reason behind the existence of the toy-vending-machine, but geez, it seems like a great idea if a parent needs an emergency bribe.  And trust me, those of us who are parents know the value of an emergency bribe, as long as its used judiciously.

My husband found this particular vending machine in the ski lodge in Naeba, a ski resort town just into Nagano prefecture, where he and my son were skiing last weekend.  It serves hot food to a needy skier who may want just a quick bite instead of waiting for a full-on lunch and potentially missing a minute of swoosh-time.  I’m sure people who are about to hop on a bus back to Tokyo after a day on the slopes (read: 3 hours on a bus…) also avail themselves of the machine’s contents. Most of the things in it are grilled and ready to pop out.

Row 1 (L-R): Fried Potato; Fried Potato; Takoyaki (Tako-yaki is grilled octopus)
Row 2: Yaki Onigiri; Yaki Onigiri (yaki-onigiri is a grilled rice ball); Takoyaki
Row 3: Hot Dog; Hot Dog; Yakisoba (yakisoba is grilled noodles)

My favorite part of this machine is that it’s advertising that it is open 24 hours, and it’s “casual” food – as if I’d expect formal food to pop out of a vending machine.  In addition, it says hot menu, but also frozen foods.  I suppose that’s as opposed to freshly cooked.  The food was probably made and frozen, then heated up again for purposes of vending.  I wonder how often the food is checked for freshness and/or changed.  However, knowing Japan and the Japanese people as I do, my guess is that the machine is managed daily.

Convenience food taken to a whole new level – that’s Japan for you.

From “A Hopeful Sign” – Every Meal in Japan is an Experience

My latest post on the e-zine “A Hopeful Sign” is about eating in Japan.  As most of you know, I truly love food and eating, and it is a big part of the Japanese culture. You can get to the post properly HERE.

In case you can’t see the link, here is a teaser of the post, but to see the full meat of it, please click on the link above.

Like many humans, I spend a lot of time not only eating, but thinking about food.  In Japan, food is not just sustenance or yummy, but a different type of art form.  From the casual to the decadent, food has a prominent place in the Japanese culture far beyond the sushi that many people associate with the country. That being said, let’s begin with sushi:

The above photo is from my favorite sushi restaurant in Japan, Fukuzushi.  Labeled by Frommer’s as possibly the best in Tokyo, it has been in business for four generations and is currently owned and run by the great-granddaughter of the founder.  Every piece of fish is hand-chosen by specially trained sushi chefs at the Tsukiji Fish market the morning before it is served.

This is a photo of master sushi chef Toyo Agarie at Fukuzushi.  He told us that he studied and worked as an apprentice for many years to become a proper sushi chef.  Once he mentioned that he worked in the restaurant for more than a year before ever touching a piece of fish.  Look carefully at the photo; Toyo-san is holding a knife in his right hand that he swings expertly toward the piece of cucumber in his hand in order to slice it beautifully to be put on the plate next to the fish.  He swings the sharp knife so fast that it’s barely visible in the photo. It’s an ancient skill and art that he practices.

A Hopeful Sign is an excellent site, full of uplifting messages and stunning photos.  Please go to the LINK and enjoy!

Thanksgiving At My Home Away From Home

To an expat, the idea of “home” is very confusing.  It could be where you live currently, where you’re from, or even the last place you lived before moving to where you are now.  It just depends on the connections you’ve made or the roots you’ve set down. However, on a day like Thanksgiving, home is tied up in the memories of complex feelings and ideas as well as place.

For Americans, Thanksgiving is the truest of cultural holidays and memories are tied up in all sorts of ways.  For some people it’s their grandmother’s kitchen or the groaning table laden with food.  For others its the insistence about watching a football game that a favorite Uncle had after dinner.  Most people have some sort of memories about food, though – it’s a really common thread.  Whether it’s Mom’s turkey or the pecan vs. pumpkin pie debate, food plays a huge role in the event.

Yesterday I was over at White Smoke, which is a Texas barbeque place right in my Tokyo neighborhood. (As an aside, the food there is unbelievable – they smoke all of their meats with a Texas dry rub and the flavors are unreal.  My son, who is off from school, and I went for lunch.)  I got to chatting with the owner and he was telling me that they will have two seatings for Thanksgiving people with upwards of eighty people expected in the restaurant.  In a place where restaurants come and go with nerve-wracking frequency, I was glad to hear they were doing so well!  But I had to laugh when he told me proudly that he was making the “corn bread dressing” he had grown up with.  First off all, I’m from New England.  We call it stuffing, not dressing.  And corn-bread? Ew!  I like plain bread stuffing swimming in onions.  In fact, my sister-in-law taught me to make it with sauteed sausage in it.  Corn bread is fine to eat as its own side dish, but as  a base for stuffing?  Not for me, thanks.  But that’s his memory – his childhood Thanksgiving food memory is tied up in cornbread dressing, so of course that’s he is going to make it as an adult.

My childhood memories involve the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  My mom had it on ALL day in the kitchen as we ate breakfast and as she cooked the meal.  My aunt and uncle and cousins would arrive before noon because they would get a jump on traffic from New York to Connecticut by leaving at the crack of dawn and having breakfast on the road. Every now and then we’d pause in our bustling around to say, “Look! There’s Underdog” (always my favorite balloon) or “Wow, listen to that awesome marching band.”

Having made a number of meals this autumn for the Jewish holidays and having thrown two bar mitzvahs in the past three months, I have abdicated my hosting responsibilities.  We are going over to the Tokyo American Club with our friends.  These are not just any friends, I must note, though.  These are the friends with whom we have a standing Sunday night dinner date. These are the friends who I would call in any emergency.  These are the friends where the parents are close and the kids are all equally as close.  And most importantly, these are the friends for whom I am grateful daily for their place in our lives.  They are as close as we’re going to get to having family in a foreign country.

So while I am missing the Macy’s parade this morning, and I sent flowers to my dearest Auntie, who has my grandmother at her house, and I have already spoken with my mother and father, I am having my own Thanksgiving in Japan, halfway around the world from where I grew up.  I am thankful for the ability to create Thanksgiving memories for my children, and I am doubly thankful for the memories of my own holidays of my childhood.  I’m going to make it a great day.

Healthy Pepsi! Yeah right…

A picture of my bottle. Note the Japanese government seal of approval of this as a drink for special health usage.

Last week Pepsi Company launched “Pepsi Special” in Japan.  Approved and regulated by the government of Japan, the soda contains the dietary fiber Dextrin, which is claimed to regulate digestion and block the absorption of fat in the body from foods.

So is there anything to these claims?  Perhaps, but the odds are small.  According to a study in 2006, rats given dextrin did not absorb as much fat from their food, but studies have not been done on  people.  In addition, when given too much dextrin, people tend to get sick, complaining of bloating, stomach cramps and other digestive issues.

At the end of the day, Pepsi Special is still a soda, and encouraging soda consumption of any sort still leads to more sugar and ultimately obesity issues.  Fortifying soda is no substitute from getting fiber from natural sources like fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

What about the taste, you might ask?  Actually, Pepsi special tastes more like regular Pepsi than Diet Pepsi does.  It does not have a film to it, and it has almost no chemical aftertaste.  When refrigerated, it tastes quite nice, and the amount of carbonation is appropriate for a low-calorie soda.

In general, I’ve found that if  claim seems too good to be true then it generally is.  But if you’re  a Pepsi drinker anyway, there’s no harm in trying Pepsi special.  But if you’re not partial to cola anyway, then don’t bother.

Restaurant Review: Le Pot Aux Roses, Azabu Juban

The wine was so great that it even went well with the dessert!

When walking from Roppongi Hills, past Tsutaya and toward Azabu Juban Shotengai, there’s a  corner building that has huge windows on the fifth floor.  It’s more noticeable at night when the darkness highlights the window, but it can easily be seen during the day as well.  After talking about it and seeing people sitting in the window for months, my husband and I decided to see what was up there.  What we found was a delectable feast of the senses called Le Pot Aux Roses. (They don’t have a website, but you can see a few things here)

My husband and I took the elevator up on a random Saturday night on the early side, before 7pm.  We were greeted in Japanese by a lovely young woman who was the server, and then in English, by a man who was clearly the head chef, based on his outfit and demeanor.  What struck us as funny – and then delightful – was that the chef spoke English with a thick French accent, not a Japanese one.  He later told us that he spent many years in France, but many years ago.

The menu was a nice size, with many items on it, but we have found that in most places when the chef offers a course menu, it is generally the best he has to offer and we should just take that.  He even came over to us with a basket of raw mushrooms, showing us what he had and what was special for the season, and promising us a warm, sauteed mushroom salad that we wouldn’t forget.  He was right.

As in most restaurants, we were given the drinks menu first and we decided to skip the cocktail and go right for the wine.  The wine list was extensive but not overwhelming, and we chose a light, but dry white from Sancerre.  The chef approved of our pairing, and I really do think that he was the type to correct us if we didn’t chose well.

But the salad wasn’t the first course – we had mussels first.  The mussels were in a slightly thickened sauce of garlic, butter and wine.  It was a healthy serving, large by Japanese standards, but we couldn’t help mopping up a little of the broth with the fresh crusty bread served on the side for that purpose.  The salad was second, and as promised, it was wonderful.  There were three or four varieties of mushroom lightly sauteed and served over mixed greens.

Mussels!

Following the salad, we had a fish course of cod broiled in a lemon-butter sauce, which melted in the mouth.  Served in a bowl, this was the only course of the evening that was a small size; everything else was fairly large.  Our main course was a duck leg stewed in a red wine sauce.  It fell off the bone in a red mass of sweet and savory combination that I have never tasted before.

Dessert was a lovely slice of French apple pie with a side of vanilla ice cream, but the flavors were complicated by the caramel sauce on the plate underneath the pie, and chocolate sauce on the plate under the dollop of whipped cream.  It was quite the combination.
While our idea of a reasonably priced dinner is arguably skewed since living in Tokyo, for the city, this dinner was indeed a good deal.  The set menu was Y6300 per person, with the wine at another Y7000, which means we had a very full dinner including drinks at under Y20,000.  Just trust me – it’s reasonable for Tokyo.  Don’t covert to another currency.

It was a wonderful evening out with my husband and a delicious meal to boot.  Special occasion or regular Saturday night, Le Pot Aux Roses is bound to be a hit.

The Tsukiji Fish Market

It was early in the morning, but the cavernous warehouse always has a blurred, night-time feel to it.

Last week I had occasion (read: chaperoning my child’s school trip) to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market for the first time in probably at least 8 years.  What I found was the same vibrant, busy place that I knew from years ago.

The idea of a fish market first came from the Shogun Ieyasu in the sixteenth century.  He allowed merchants to come in and sell to various markets throughout the city, thus meeting the increased demand for fish in the newly formed capitol of Edo, as Tokyo was called then.  Markets for fish, vegetables and other food items cropped up throughout the city, but it wasn’t until after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government took over and built a structure to centralize the wholesale industry.

What has emerged is a model of modern efficiency and wizardry.  Tsukiji is the largest fish market in the world, and arguably the largest market of any food item in the world.  It opens to fishermen at 3am most weekday mornings.  They come in to display their wares, and then licensed wholesalers get to bid on the stocks.  Most notable are the huge tunas that come in and the way the experienced buyers

All kinds of seafood were for sale to retailers, including the whole squids seen here.

examine them before making their bids.  The auctions take place between 5am and 7am.  I went only once at that hour, but the sight of the normally staid Japanese men serenely muttering bids in increasingly louder intensities astounded me.

After the auction, the fish and a few other related items are carted off on these little electric cars to the wholesaler stalls throughout the humongous market for purchase by retail establishments between the hours of 7-9am mostly.  The aisles of the market are cramped and the floor is constantly wet.  You never know when

Most people use bamboo shopping bags like the one this man carried.

a merchant might need to “wet” his stock with a bucket or hose, so covered shoes are a necessity when visiting.  Tsukiji is open officially until 1pm, but most business has died down by 10am.

Policemen and security people are stationed throughout the market partially because of the increase in tourist interest in the market.  I was leading a group of five kids through it, and an officer gave me a sheet of paper.  It had “rules” on it, written in English, including no purchasing (we’re not retailers), and no taking photos without the merchant’s permission.

The economics of the place are astounding, according to online sources: more than 700,000 metric tons of seafood are handled every year,  with a total value in excess of 600 billion yen (approximately 5.5 billion US dollars). The number of registered employees as of January 2010 varies from 60,000 to 65,000, including wholesalers, accountants, auctioneers, company officials, and distributors.

More seafood for sale…

Of course the kids I was leading weren’t thinking of any of the history or economics of the place.  They were astounded at the sheer size of the market as well as the vast array of seafood on display at the hundreds of stalls spanning aisle after

aisle of the cavernous building.  The merchants and buyers walked around us, or bumped into us while going on their

way getting what they needed.  They were polite, but business came first.  Tourists were a bit of a nuisance to them.  Rightfully so; we were interrupting their livelihood.

There have been times in the past few years when the fishmarket has been closed to tourists, but as of now it’s open and the kids were delighted.  It was quite a foray into the underpinning of Tokyo life and an invaluable lesson in how the foods they love might get to their plates.  A definite must-see for travelers to Tokyo.

Singaporean Chicken Rice

Recently my good friend and I decided to have lunch together and she suggested her favorite Singaporean restaurant.  Having a husband who is from Singapore, and having lived there herself for a number of years, I deemed her the authority on the cuisine and eagerly followed her lead.

The name of the restaurant is Hainan Jeefan Shokudo and it’s located in the Azabu Juban section of Tokyo, just behind, sort of catty-corner to the big Lincos Supermarket and Tsutaya that are at the bottom of Keyaki Zaka – Roppongi Hills.  It has a neat stone entry and about three tables outside.  Inside it is sparsely decorated with dark wood and simple, spare tables and chairs.

At lunchtime at this restaurant,  there really is no other choice of fare besides chicken rice.  Oh, there’s one other dish of the day that’s usually spicy, but most people go there for the chicken rice, which, according to my friend, is pretty much the national dish of Singapore. It is a full plate of tender, steaming chicken which is tender enough to cut with the side of a fork (one only receives a fork and a spoon for utensils) along with a refillable (free) dollop of sweet jasmine rise, and pickles.  One the side, also refillable, is a dish of three sauces – one sweet, one spicy and one ginger.  The idea is to cut the chicken, scoop it and some rice onto the spoon, and then dip it into one, two or all three sauces before putting it into your mouth. Also on the side is a bowl of very plain chicken broth with a hint of pepper in it – that’s for drinking.

At each space is placemat that details precisely HOW to eat Singaporean Chicken Rice. Make no mistake: there is a proper method to eating this dish.  There’s a way to use the utensils in tandem to get the most flavors into your mouth at once so you can fully appreciate the “complexity” of the tastes as they cover your taste buds.  The soup is so you can cleanse your palate between bites.  I’m not sure what the pickles are for – they could be a side dish that lends it a little Japanese ambiance – pickles are very Japanese.  But they, too, are so mild that they could be meant for palate cleansing.

It was all delicious.  I tried my best with the method, but I ended up looking mildly ridiculous, of course.  But in the end, they are right – the mix of tastes does wander around on the tongue so that each flavor stands out at a different time in the chewing and swallowing process.  I could taste every bit of of the sweet and savory mix.  The serving was perfect too – just enough to be filling without over-stuffing.  Some people had extra rice, and we did have extra sauce (which just somehow appeared before us – the staff is quiet, but omnipresent)  but otherwise it’s the perfect lunch portion.

I’ll have to go back for dinner and report on a hopefully expanded menu, but with just as good service and food.

My favorite thing about eating in Asia is that every meal is experiential.  It’s not about just taste or smell; often there’s elements of touch and sight involved also.  The method of consumption is just as important as the dish itself.  A big thank-you to my friend who took me there – I’m sure to go back!

Summer Pepsi in Japan

Every summer, Pepsi comes out with a new flavor in Japan.  This summer it was, as you can see here, salty watermelon flavor.  It’s a limited engagement type of thing – it only lasts from late June through August, and then it is gone from the shelves.  A follower of mine on Twitter, @TheTokyoFiles, (See his blog at The Tokyo Files) tells me that it tasted like mild pickle juice.  I am not sure that’s such a ringing endorsement, but it is descriptive.  Most often these summer sodas have less carbonation than other sodas in order to enhance the flavor.  I’m sure it was an interesting, if not fully enjoyable, experience.  I can’t wait til next year to see what the Pepsi company will come out with next!